When examining a system and using controls and variables in order to reach a scientific conclusion, it is crucial that the system itself does not change. For instance, if we received a machine from outer space and knew that it operated under three rules: 1) turn red balls to blue, 2) blue balls to yellow and 3) yellow balls to red; and we wanted to examine how this machine would react if we submitted a red and yellow striped ball. We could not reliably reach a conclusion if one of the known rules changed, even slightly. We’d have a new system. There have to be constants.
This idea is a pillar of medical research. One constant that researchers rely on for every experiment—give or take some relatively small physical trait differences—is that their groupings of test subjects will behave and react in replicable fashion. If we are testing the effects of a specific drug on influenza (and we have ruled out the possibility of immune disorders and related issues), scientists will assume that the basic mechanisms of immunity—antibody creation, bone marrow, white blood cells, the spleen, circulation, sneezing, etc—are behaving under the same machinery. The researchers operate under the notion that people are not evolving mid-experiment; the mechanics and chemistry of the body will be relatively unchanged and allow us to reach a sound, replicable conclusion.
So for this reason, I still have trouble taking any economist, no matter how decorated or red-faced, too seriously. Paul Krugman, for instance, has become somewhat of a golden idol for liberal ideologues. “He says we need more government spending! He won the Nobel Prize!” Same went for conservative ideologues and the word of Milton Friedman. “He says the free market will take care of everything! He won the Nobel Prize!” It’s not that these men aren’t painfully smart or exceedingly rational, it just seems borderline-ridiculous that they wouldn’t hedge their beliefs with, “or, I dunno, at least that seems kinda likely.” Of course tenure, the research ladder and the interpretive press prevent this.
Like any scientific system, world economics and trade are made up of a litany of variables—GDP, unemployment, interest rates, exports, imports, exchange rates, etc—that are totally measurable. In this respect, the science of economics is quite beautiful. You can sum up very messy situations with tidy figures. But, those variables live in a system changing too rapidly to be understood and studied. Unless the light of day still hurts your eyes, you know the economy is moving towards globalization. China and India are skyrocketing; despite cultural bumps and bruises the EU is slowly coming together; Africa is waking; the US is fledgling; South America is simmering and on and on. These are the organs of the world body; they are changing every day. If we froze them all in time, after a while, we could reach some real conclusions on the future. But it would only be for that moment; a year later those organs would have assumed different roles. Its like Heisenberg’s famous Uncertainty Principle: you can only measure velocity or position, not both at the same time.
The velocity, the evolution, the evolving system of our world is in the politics. That’s why we can never be so sure; we oh-so want to be, but we can’t. The laws and mechanics of experimental replicability change every day. The body politic, ideals, legislation and governments are evolving too fast, and each operates with another in increasingly intertwined fabrics. Say tomorrow (very hypothetically and simplistically) Mexico legalizes all drugs; now there are more jobs and fewer illegal immigrants to the US; doesn’t that decrease in competition immediately throw a question at all economists’ predicted rates of unemployment in the United States? Sure, they can adjust, but whatever predictions we just wasted our time debating are out the window. (The body just decided that blood doesn’t flow to the nose anymore; start our influenza drug tests over!)
This is not to call the entire field of trade and market economics into question; it is to call into question the fierceness and assuredness of opinions and dogma that surround it. The sands of the world are shifting too fast. To slam a fist and say, “We should have been out of this recession by now!” or “It will be over by next year!” is just plain idiocy. There is no way to know, Nobel Prizes and all.
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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at